Why Democracies Fail…or How?

Over at the Center for Global Development‘s Views from the Center blog, visiting fellow Ethan Kapstein looks to the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives for lessons about why democracies fail. Drawing on his book with Nathan Converse, Kapstein starts by refuting a few widely-held notions about the causes of democratic breakdown:

Democracies do not fail for the reasons commonly supposed. They do not generally fail, for example, because of poor economic performance…Nor do democracies reverse while undergoing the process of economic reform…Finally, democracies are no more likely to be sustained by adopting parliamentary instead of presidential institutions.

So far, so good for me. Those claims generally align with findings from my statistical research (see here and here, for example), even though our studies used different data sets to measure democratic transitions and breakdown.

Where Kapstein slips, I think, is when he tries to offers a better explanation.

Why, then, do democracies fail? Our study identified several common factors. First, young democracies are often weakened by extreme levels of income inequality. Rising income inequality indicates a dysfunctional democratic state in which economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than one in which economic opportunities are widely shared and diffused….Second, young democracies that are unable to constrain the executive branch of power—whether presidential or parliamentary—will find it difficult to sustain participatory forms of government. The usual red flags here are changes—or attempts to change—the constitution, particularly with respect to term limits and electoral cycles…Third, democratic states that are ethnically fragmented face severe challenges of institution building they may be unable to overcome…Fourth, newly democratic states that do not provide adequate supplies of “public goods” like health care and education are unlikely to succeed.

Three items on that list–income inequality, ethnic fragmentation, and inadequate supplies of public goods–apply to most poor countries of any political stripe, and some of them even apply to most rich democracies. Because they are so generic, they don’t really help us distinguish between the democracies that fail and the ones that survive. (I have another problem with claims about the effects of income inequality in poor countries, but I’ll set that aside for now.)

The other item on that list–failure to constrain executive power–describes the very outcome Kapstein is trying to explain. When chief executives rewrite electoral laws or constitutions to ensure that they stay in power, we are witnessing the course of democratic breakdown, not its cause.

I think we can see the causes of democratic breakdown more clearly by focusing not on structural conditions, but on strategic dilemmas. In a book I wrote on the subject, I used a game-theoretic model to explore how leading political parties and the military might be expected to react to the temptations and fears they face in the highly uncertain environment of newly democratic politics. Consistent with conventional wisdom, I found that the spoils of state power will often tempt those organizations to try to seize or cement control of government in undemocratic ways.

More novel, I also found that groups will sometimes try to seize power as a defensive act, a preemptive strike against rivals whom they fear are plotting to do the same. We see this dynamic at work in Thailand in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2007, where military leaders seized power in coups when they feared that incumbent governments were institutionalizing their partisan advantage. We see it in Turkey today, where the ruling Justice and Development Party is arresting journalists and military officers in an overzealous effort to preempt an unlikely coup plot by its ardently secularist rivals.

These defensive pressures appear to have played a role in the recent coups in Mali and the Maldives as well. In Mali, mid-ranking officers seized power just one month before the next presidential election was scheduled to happen, and doubts about the fairness of that impending contest seem to have contributed to the officers’ decision, and to how the public has received it. Referring to the ousted president by his initials, one merchant told the New York Times, “A.T.T. can go to hell! He’s lied too much. Anyway, was he really going to organize elections?” In the Maldives, President Mohammed Hasheed was toppled after he tried to force a prominent judge from the bench, a move his rivals saw as a part of an unconstitutional expansion of his authority.

Combine these fears with the usual temptations of political power, and it’s easy to see why democratic consolidation is so hard. Structural conditions certainly shape the expected payoffs from different courses of action, but strategic uncertainty is the real engine of democratic breakdown.

This distinction matters for our thinking about how to respond to the problem and try to promote the survival of democratic regimes. In his blog post, Kapstein enumerates a few ideas:

What can the international community do to support newly elected regimes? A number of policies should be advanced, but all must have a common purpose: to dilute the existing concentrations of power. This means that foreign assistance should support the development of robust political parties; of inclusive systems of health care and education; and of a vibrant private sector.  Free trade agreements should be extended to new democracies, as well as schemes to promote international collaborative research and cultural engagement.

It’s hard to argue with efforts to expand health care, education, collaborative research, and cultural engagement. What I don’t like on this list is the proposal to “support the development of robust political parties” as a means to “dilute existing concentrations of power.” In practice, this usually means funding opposition parties.

The idea of constraining the government may be normatively appealing, but it’s strategically myopic. In effect, it privileges the opposition’s view. If we try to put ourselves in the shoes of incumbent officials–and, in some situations, military officers–we can see how foreign efforts to boost the strength of a political rival might appear menacing, and how that sense of menace could prompt those officials and officers to take countermeasures that directly erode or demolish democratic procedures. There may be some situations where this kind of assistance is warranted, but foreign governments and aid groups should meddle with caution in political rivalries on which the fate of other democracies may depend.

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